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I Hope Neil Young Will Remember...That The MacBook Pro Isn't Crap  

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Dave Hamilton
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February 3, 2020 11:18 EST AM  
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As you've probably heard by now, Neil Young recently got on The Vergecast and called the MacBook Pro's audio capabilities "Fisher-Price quality". While preparing to discuss my thoughts about this for today's Mac Geek Gab 800, I decided I probably needed to share them in written form, too. I wasn't planning on publishing anything, as so many other smart people (Jim Dalrymple and Jason Snell among them) have said all the smart things I thought needed to be said.

But I realized that there's another angle to approach this from: one of compassion; one of trying to understand where all this comes from. I was never really a Neil Young fan. Quite frankly, I don't like to hear him sing. I appreciate his place in the history of rock-and-roll, of course, and his songwriting abilities are not-to-be-challenged. I just don't want to be the one hearing him sing those songs, you understand. Given the rant I delivered on today's Mac Geek Gab, perhaps there's not much I want to hear from Mr. Young.

This isn't the first time Neil has been in the technology news. Years ago, he and famed-producer, Bruce Botnick, were hawking their (now-defunct) PonoPlayer to us music-loving geeks, trying to explain to us why playing music back at bitrates and sample rates far beyond the realm of human hearing mattered. In a conversation I had with him about it at the time, Botnick made liberal use of the phrase, "as the artist intended." Confirmation bias is really what that was (and is) about: if you believe something sounds better because of some external factor, your brain will actually perceive it as sounding better, and you'll enjoy it more.

But Neil Young's most recent comments about the MacBook Pro are more about purity ... and relevance. As an aging human who is still lucky enough to be actively aging, I can relate to the concept of relevance! And there are two ways to approach it: waxing poetic (and clinging to!) the things that you did "way back when", or embracing change and evolving with the times.

Neither of these approaches is wrong, mind you, at least not all the time. Sometimes the only positive thing you can say about the "new way of doing things" is that it's new and will continue to evolve into something (hopefully) better. If you go in with that assumption, though, you'll often miss out on the ability to see the benefits of change and evolution.

What bothers me about Neil Young is that he's a mess of contradictions. His Pono player was all digital, all the time; "state-of-the-art" one might say. One might also say the same about the new 16" MacBook Pro, as long as that one isn't Neil Young. To Neil, the MacBook Pro is "a piece of crap ... Fisher-Price quality."

Seriously, Neil? Fisher-Price crap? Nah, man.

When Neil Young was in the studio in the 60's and 70's – his golden years, if I'm to intuit his recent ramblings correctly – he was using the state-of-the-art components of the time. On those early records, I would presume that Mr. Young didn't have much say about the technology that was being used: he was just lucky to be there and have the chance to record his music for others to hear. I dare say that if digital were available at that moment, it would have been used by whatever engineers were recording him: if the engineers at Gold Star and Columbia Studios used a 2019 16" MacBook Pro to record that album (in 1966!), I am certain Neil Young would've equally loved the career and lifestyle that resulted from those recordings being shared with what-would-come-to-be his adoring fans. And he would probably say very positive and even (anachronistically) nostalgic things about that MacBook Pro.

Putting all this together, I feel Mr. Young has conflated his quest for purity with his desire for relevance, finding it hard to let go of the past and adapt to the present. And that's without getting into the fact that Neil Young certainly doesn't hear as well as he used to hear.

To paraphrase another great songwriter: I hope Neil Young will remember (no he won't). This geeky man don't need him around, anyhow*.

*I hope Neil Young continues to live a long and prosperous life. But if he's just going to be poo-pooing all new tech that isn't his, best if he stays out of the limelight when doing so. Focus on the positive, Brother Neil. That has served you well in the past.


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John Kheit
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February 3, 2020 11:40 EST AM  

He's a **** but I think he has a point. It doesn't take that much to just flip a switch and have all music in 24/192 and have better quality components. That the Mac Pro comes with no good audio connectors, just basically a headphone out, ISSSSSS a giant joke. Yes you can add in a slot that will give you amazing abilities, but the old machines had better facilities and there is reason to lower the lowest common denominator more.

In the end, he's asking to raise the lowest common denominator. During a time when it would be really easy to do so. The best argument apple has is a LOSER argument, it aint for you/that would cost us $0.98 more to put in. I'm also not a fan of the messenger, but the message of raising the lowest common denominator is not a bad one. As always, YMMV.


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Dave Hamilton
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February 3, 2020 11:56 EST AM  

It's worth pointing you (and anyone else) to 00:52:22 of today's Mac Geek Gab episode 800 where we talked more about this "lowest common denominator." https://www.macobserver.com/podcasts/macgeekgab-800/

Yes, 320kbps MP3 or 256kbps AAC does have less data than an uncompressed 16/44 (or 24/192) file, but... hearing the difference between those is not something most people can hear. Even the (very) trained ear can't hear the difference universally: only on certain segments of certain tracks.

And as for recording, I think having a single audio input is all one should expect on a computer. If you want/need more, then spend the money and get an audio interface with as many inputs/outputs as you need, adding to your flexibility. But no need to spent that money universally for every single computer sold.

As for recording, I believe the new MacBook Pro can easily do 24 (or even 32-bit) and 96kHz on input (and output). And for recording, there's a good argument to make about capturing more data than the human ear can hear. That way you can mix and edit without cutting out "valuable" data.

But the ability for the MacBook Pro (or, really, any modern Mac) to record is stellar, and categorizing it as "Fisher-Price crap" is completely inaccurate.


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wab95
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February 3, 2020 12:27 EST PM  

Dave:

Nice thoughts, man. Although you focussed on compassion, they were also smart, particularly those concerning confirmation bias and how it works.

As you’ve pointed out, not for the first time has Neil Young irked a community; Lynryd Skynrd amongst those inviting him to take his opinions with him out the door.

As a music non-professional, it would be difficult for me to assess the merits of Young’s argument; which is why I can appreciate the technical elements of Jim Dalrymple’s rebuttal, which strike me as persuasive. When using a high end sound system, I, for one, cannot hear any superiority of analog over digital, and certainly nothing compelling enough for me to vote with my wallet.

What I have come to appreciate, from artists and those who know the industry, including a recent BBC presentation around Bruce Springsteen’s BD and the waning influence of Rock as a cultural phenomenon, is the revolution wrought by Apple (and others) in making recording and performing accessible to a broader range of artists than would have been possible without it, and indeed, as argued by some, enabling the global dominance of a genre (hip hop/rap) as the medium of choice for story telling across cultures worldwide in a way that could not have happened otherwise.

Giving a voice to the voiceless and to people previously neither seen nor heard is a good thing, and a quintessentially Apple thing.


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John Kheit
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February 3, 2020 1:02 EST PM  

In my opinion, that's weak apologizing for the lowest common denominator. Most people can't tell the difference between 24bit color and 30bit. Heck most can't tell the difference between crappy speakers and good ones. If we go by most or the mob or the lowest common denominator we're all fine at windows 95.

There is little expense to improve audio capture components and file formats today. Arguing against it is so much rationalizing for the lowest common denominator and I like that Neil is arguing for better standards. I see no reason not to join him other than he's an abrasive a**hat, but then again I realize I can't be throwing any stones through my glass house in that arena.

Where we do agree fully is the MBP is not fisher price and his hyperbolic assessment there is just that.

Regardless, very much like the article and your take, despite our apparent disagreement on parts of it.


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Dave Hamilton
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February 3, 2020 1:28 EST PM  

I appreciate the discourse! 🙂

I guess I'm still curious: You complain that the "audio capture components" are weak, but haven't offered an alternative. What would that alternative be?


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geoduck
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February 3, 2020 1:50 EST PM  

I’m not a musician and so don’t know what is involved with attaching amps et.al. to a computer, but can’t the interface go through USB? Seems like USB-C would have plenty of bandwidth for whatever level of audio one wanted to use. The 16” MacBook Pro has four of those.


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John Kheit
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February 3, 2020 2:04 EST PM  

Both the capture components and the file formats. I would include DACs built in that support 24/192, and at least line in on the pro laptops, and both line in and optical on the desktop pro machines. And, I'd offer a lossless (compressed) 24/192 apple format even in the iTunes Store, and system wide.


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John Kheit
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February 3, 2020 2:14 EST PM  

Absolutely, and most folks that care do that (or via thunderbolt or PCI) for high end audio stuff. The thing is, back when Neil talked to Steve maybe adding in components that could do 24/192 were more expensive/difficult to deal with. Today, it's way easier and cheaper.

There is no reason that in 2006 the Mac Pro came with in/out for mic, line, and optical, and the $15k "pro" Mac Pro comes with must a mic port. It's kind of insulting, IMO.


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Dave Hamilton
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February 3, 2020 3:10 EST PM  

The built-in stuff in Macs can record (and playback) at 24/96 (at least), which is certainly a "pro" level for recording, and well-beyond anything anyone needs for playback (very few places record at 192kHz, for a variety of reasons). It's worth reading my 5yo piece on this: https://www.macobserver.com/tmo/article/digital-music-16-bit-44-khz-explained .

As for the inputs — you still didn't answer my question. 🙂 You just pointed at something we used to have and said we could/should have that. Problem is, at any level we could point at it and say, "not enough," referring to the number of inputs, the type of jacks available, etc. It makes zero sense to start putting a bunch of 1/4" and XLR connectors on every single computer sold, so you're almost definitely going to need a breakout box/interface of some sort to do any kind of recording (even podcasting!). And those breakout boxes/interfaces are (now) inexpensive, reliable, and plentiful. It doesn't make sense to charge every user for one of those.

I'd much rather Apple focus on making Pro level machines with fast CPUs (they do), appropriate expansion (they now do!), and fantastic software (they do!) so that I can get the interface that fits my needs and just use it.

And when I go to your studio (or hotel room) to record a track with you and use the interface that fits your needs, everything else is the same and it just works. The interface just becomes an adapter of sorts.

We live in Dongle World now with USB-C, and I couldn't be happier about that. It allows us each to customize our computers to our exact specifications without being stuck with ports we won't ever use. Audio should be – and is – the same.


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John Kheit
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February 3, 2020 3:29 EST PM  

That you don't want to accept my answers as answers is your prerogative. 192khz aint needed says you. But I say it is. And so do many pros. And it's beyond trivial for apple to add. And believe it or not I CAN hear a difference on output on my Kefs when I have it on with great audio.

And don't move the goal posts. I said what I want, and MANY other audio pro's have lamented the loss of the line-in and optical connectors. Again, this is trivial and it's not a floppy drive. This is common stuff used today by many audio pros. Your bringing up essentially "no one can have and be all things for all people" is a red herring. Furthermore, you add another fallacy about concentrating on faster CPUs. First, apple isn't focusing on faster CPUs on Macs, others's duty, and secondly, it's a false dichotomy. And another fallacy, that YOU ARE ok with dongles, doesn't mean others are, and again another false dichotomy, even if they are, for a desktop machine like the damn Mac Pro, it's not an issue. And if dongles were so successful on the Mac Pro, the trashcan must have been an amazing success, but yea, its spaghetti dongle hell was among the many failures of that machine too.

To wit, you asked, I answered. You dont agree with the answers. Fair enough. I don't agree with the arguments towards lowest common denominator.


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Dave Hamilton
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February 3, 2020 3:48 EST PM  

That's just it, John: Respectfully, I don't think you quite understand how this works.

The right dongle will have both the inputs you want and the 24/196 you want. It's not limited to whatever Apple chose to put into the onboard DAC on any given Mac. But given what could be plugged into a Mac, I'm pretty sure there's no good reason to set it at 192 on that input.

As for your ability to hear the difference between 96kHz and 192kHz audio, I would encourage you to truly ABX test this. If you can hear the difference, you'll (almost certainly) be the first human in recorded history to do so. Unless, of course, there's something wrong with the DAC that adds an audible artifact when up/down-sampling the source.

That said, I 100% agree that one should record at levels higher than human hearing. Whether that's 96k or 192k is almost a stylistic choice (and there are technical pitfalls one encounters with 192k with a lot of software). And that's why I want a CPU (and RAM and SSD) that can handle many real-time tracks of that, so I can mix in real-time with all my effects adjustable. That's most definitely a CPU-related thing, and the more we can throw at that, the better, especially if the software is written to accommodate that.

And that's the beauty of that MacBook Pro. I can record the tracks however I want, and then mix them wherever I want, because that (portable) machine can handle a lot in this regard. Throw Logic Pro X on to it and the world is your oyster. It's certainly not the lowest-common-denominator in any way you look at it.

I'm still not understanding your argument, but maybe it's because I use this stuff all the time and have visceral experience with the flexibility that this exact scenario can offer. Other than Mr. Young, I haven't seen any other "pros" complaining about what the current crop of Macs can do in a Pro Audio environment. Usually any limitations are external, and therefore easily solved.


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Dave Hamilton
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February 3, 2020 3:50 EST PM  

For example: this sub-$200 interface will (likely?) give you what you're looking for here. https://www.musiciansfriend.com/pro-audio/focusrite-scarlett-2i2-usb-audio-interface-gen-3/l56575000000000


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John Kheit
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February 3, 2020 4:09 EST PM  

Disagree, why a dongle on a 15k machine. And I absolutely can hear the difference. Want to know why? Not because I have such exceptional hearing. Because when you pump out lesser audio to the Kefs that has it's own amp and prefers 24/192, and you pump in lesser 44/16 or 48/16 (the macOS standard) the cross coding is crap. And why is that. Because the lowest common denominator is crap. You have loss on loss. And the reality is there is no need for this loss because all pros dump at 24/192. So why not just raise the bar.

There's just no reason not to go up in quality. After all, for the longest time, everything in macOS was set to 16/44.1, and now its 16/48 as default in MIDI app. Why not keep upping it.

I have seen other pros complaining about the lack of ports on both the MBPs and the Mac Pro. Now the reason why the complaint isn't super screechy is, to your point, it's cheap and easy to get around it. But again, the topic, at least for me, is why not up the lowest common denominator to 96/192. That is lightweight work these days for for computers. And why not include a line in on the MBP and line in and optical on the Mac Pro and iMac Pro. These are still commonly used and reduce the need for slots/dongles by pros. There are many fair arguments not to do so, but none of them work to raise the lowest common denominator.

I also dont see your dongle argument applying to Pro work. It's fair for the average road warrior, but for pro work, I think it falls flat. Now if you argue that these ports are receding from use that's one thing. But lack of an SD slot for photographers, and lack of line-in for podcasters/audio pros is not the case. Plus, these are not limitations on thinness or battery not he machines. You know darn well they are not. These are aesthetic/ideological choices. Same thing with optical on the pro desktop machines.

That said, I do agree, that getting around them is trivial, and why I suspect there isn't a large outcry. It's easier to buy the dongle than bitch.

And your dongle doesn't fix the problem of transcoding from some crap 16/48 standard out to 24/192, when it's so easy to just make this the standard across the board. Again, Apple recently upped from 16/44.1 to 16/48. They could do better with little cost.

I'm always going to be on the side of upping the lowest common denominator, unless there is some other more compelling user benefit not to. So MP3s over CD quality had the compelling benefit of portability and storage when storage was expensive. That no longer stands because having a lossless version of a track at a higher record rate is just so cheap. A 16TB drive costs less than $400. 16TB NVMe SSDs that doe 3500MB/s cost under 2500. Audio at higher recording rates isn't even round off error at this point.

On the other hand, killing the floppy or CD or spinner drive, or killing off (I cannot wait) lightening connectors for more modern, more flexible, faster mechanisms and connectors, yea, I'm down with that.

As with many things in life, there are different balances of features and tradeoffs that work better for some, less for others, and somewhere there is a golden value that works for most. Apple is generally great at guessing at that, but they also fail spectacularly at times (e.g., DVDs instead of CD burners, cube, trashcan Mac Pro, etc). IMO increasing thickness of the high end Mac Pro was a good tradeoff for pros, adding some minor ports and increasing audio fidelity would be another positive step on their pro line.

That said, I readily concede that for most of their base, this is all irrelevant noise. They dont care. But I don't care that they don't care.


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archimedes
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February 3, 2020 7:33 EST PM  

Forget 24/192 (though you can get 24/192 over USB and many professional audio setups use audio over Ethernet.) CD quality with good mastering sounds fantastic. I just want the real bits from the CD (Apple Lossless format would be fine) so I don't have to buy a physical disc ever again.


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